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   Prashanto Banerji - Features Editor - The Sunday Indian
Prashanto Banerji
Features Editor - The Sunday Indian
[11 Mar 2007]

Dead fish float

There are two ways of dealing with the dreaded ‘writer’s block’: one, look at it the way Michelangelo might have looked upon a block of marble and wondered about the possibilities that lay within and two, do what Ernest Hemingway did – shoot yourself, or if conditions aren’t as dire – go fishing.

Karvar is a ‘fish-market’. Not a mere figure of speech, but a living, salt-air breathing fish market with some still-living, some still-breathing fish and tons, and tons, and tons of just-dead fish. And that’s where I went fishing… for a story. It all began the night before, while I was relaxing in a shack by a private beach in Goa. With the silver shimmer of the moonlit waters breaking against the shore, and gentle strains of a Konkani ballad surfing on the waves, this place was just what the brochures promised it would be, till I saw the menu card. Listed somewhere between Goan prawn curry and Portuguese pork curry were the words – shark xacuti. I was surprised to see the words written in bold because while shark xacuti has traditionally been on the Goan menu for ages, most shark populations around the world have suffered heavy losses and many have been accorded protection by local governments.

Sharks don’t have the regal bearing of a big cat, the cuddly charm of a bear cub or the almost human expression of a mountain gorilla. For aeons, they’ve been hated as fearsome man-eaters and Hollywood didn’t help with its near demonic representation of this supreme predator in popular classics like Jaws. Generally speaking, the shark is perhaps the most detested and the most dreaded of creatures, just a few notches ahead of a certain world leader whose name rhymes with ‘tush’ and another who, if certain conspiracy theories are to be believed, has apparently ‘been laden’ with more than he can claim credit for. (I know it’s bit of an overkill, but hey, everybody is doing it). Species like the legendary Great White are notorious for their savagery but they are no more vile or dangerous than any predator at the apex of its food chain – much like a tiger in the jungle. The fact that they command a realm that we still can’t control adds an aura of mysterious invincibility to the creature but the simple truth is that New Yorkers, according to the NYC health department, bite more people than sharks do every year and that too because they (the sharks, that is) confuse people with other prey species. In fact, the only way a shark has of figuring out whether something is worth eating or not is by mouthing it and that is what explains a large number of shark attack survivors. You see, if a 21 feet long shark, that weighs in excess of a 1,000 kgs, wants to kill an unarmed human diver or surfer, it will, and the only reason why many survive (almost 90%) is because usually the shark realises that what it has in its mouth was not what it thought it to be. Marine eco-systems, as well as the fishermen who fish in them, need the shark to keep these waters, and by extension, the fishing industry, healthy. And yet, people who can’t stand the sight of a mangy little puppy shivering in the cold wouldn’t usually care two hoots for a cold-blooded shark.

Karvar, five kilometres across the border into Karnataka is where the ‘catch’ from trawlers along the south Goa coastline is traded. Local fisherfolk, mostly Konkani women, trade in a babelesque babble while my driver Rajendra, who doubles up as guide and interpreter shows me around. I was told that shark pups are quite a common catch in these waters and sometimes they might even land a big one. Rajendra insists that he once saw a 15 foot monster. Either my alien presence had made them wary or maybe it had been a bad night’s fishing but I only saw one mutilated shark pup – perhaps a white-tip, about 37 inches long. In 2001, India had extended a blanket ban on shark hunting but wilted under pressure from the fisheries lobby and de-listed all but 9 species from the protected species category. Incidentally, although it is prized by both locals and tourists for its meat, most sharks in Indian waters are hunted for their fins which are exported into East Asian countries where shark fin soup is a delicacy.

Though the shark fin industry is worth millions of dollars in exports, it’s obvious that sharks are more valuable alive than dead to fishermen because it is they who keep other marine populations healthy. And if the shark watching industry could be kick started in earnest, like in South Africa and Australia, the benefits would far outstrip the shark’s current contribution to the national and local economy. So next time you’re about to order a plate of xacuti or worse, some shark fin soup (see slip stream), think again…

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